Yaffa Gunner, active member of the Jewish Community of Amherst, was interviewed by Allie Brudney on May 15, 2012, at the Yiddish Book Center in Amherst, Massachusetts.
Yaffa Gunner begins her interview by describing her family background; both of her parents were born in Hungary and immigrated to the United States. Her father left for the US before the First World War, but her mother only managed to arrive after the war ended, with two children in tow. Yaffa’s parents owned a bakery in the New Jersey town where they settled. She explains that the whole family had asthma from living above the bakery. Due to her asthma, Yaffa did not live with her parents for much of her childhood, instead moving in with her aunt and sister at various times.
Yaffa was very active in Hashomer Hatzair (The Youth Guard), a Socialist-Zionist youth movement. She explains that she first attended a meeting because a friend brought her along. She quickly realized that she felt very comfortable with the youth movement; the gender equality, as well as the political activism, drew her closer to the movement. Nevertheless, throughout her time in Hashomer Hatzair she remained uncomfortable with the Zionist leanings, while she felt more comfortable with the socialist ideals.
During World War II, Yaffa became head of the Eastern Bronx Chapter of the Hashomer Hatzair. It was while she was working in the leadership of the movement that she first met her future husband, Haim Gunner. Haim was quite active in the youth movement in Winnipeg, Canada. She had to correspond with him, and as they both explain, he wrote back correcting her grammar! Despite their initial disdain for one another, during their time in Israel they got to know each other better and fell in love.
On the kibbutz (a collective community in Israel that was traditionally based on agriculture), Yaffa trained to work with young children. Instead of sleeping near their parents, children – and even babies – slept in the “children’s house” and were looked after by other members of the kibbutz. Yaffa was originally in charge of three six-month olds, a task she found quite difficult. Despite how hard she found the work, she was very committed to the child-rearing philosophy of the kibbutz which limited contact between mother and child. When her daughter was born, however, she drastically changed her mind. She was told that her daughter was a “problem child” because at five months she was not sucking her thumb or taking a bottle. Yaffa finally took her daughter to a doctor and learned that she had cerebral palsy. Yaffa became quite unhappy on the kibbutz and wanted to leave. Finally, after three years, she and Haim left the kibbutz and moved to Jerusalem. Yaffa spends a few minutes discussing the kibbutzim (plural of kibbutz), as well as her and Haim’s loyalty to the movement.
The rest of the interview focuses on Yaffa’s life in the United States after she and Haim left Israel. Yaffa has been quite involved in the local synagogue, the Jewish Community of Amherst (JCA), since its founding in the 1970s. Yaffa reflects on the impact of living in Amherst, and how if she had lived in New York City she would probably not have felt the need to be involved in the Jewish community. She has been active on a number of committees, including the New Israel Fund.
Yaffa then skips to her trip to the USSR with Haim in 1977. They were chosen to travel to the Soviet Union to meet with refuseniks and help them gain visas to Israel. Yaffa explains that the country was “still very Stalinistic” and that they had to be very careful. She remembers a frightening moment as they were leaving when her and Haim’s notebooks were confiscated. Although Haim’s was returned, she never got hers back. She and Haim were given a list of one hundred names to contact about an international conference.
Yaffa returns to discussing her work with the JCA in Israel, especially with a community in Rechovot. The first year that the project took place the JCA collected money to send immigrants to an ulpan, an institution for the intensive study of Hebrew. The second year they contacted a school and collected money for computers. The next year they contacted another school and sent them books. Yet another school asked for an after-school program. This has developed into a substantial program, with a teacher working closely with small groups of children who need extra help. These children tend to be underprivileged, either immigrants from Ethiopia or Russia or impoverished native Israelis. The JCA has created a trip to Israel every other year, during which they almost always visit Rechovot.
Yaffa wraps up the interview reflecting on what she finds important about Judaism and what she hopes to pass on to future generations. She believes that a good Jewish education and a basic knowledge of Hebrew are essential. She also emphasizes how important Israel is. In fact, the holidays that she now focuses on are Yom Hashoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) and those that relate directly to Israel. Yaffa states that if you don’t know Yiddish, you cannot understand Jewish history, but if you do not know Hebrew, you cannot understand the Jewish present. In addition to stating her favorite Yiddish phrase – gor nisht helfen, it won’t help at all – Yaffa ends the interview by advising future generation to learn, to study, to be active, to read before making decisions, to take life in your own hands, and lastly to care about both humanity and especially Jews.
To learn more about the Wexler Oral History Project, visit: http://www.yiddishbookcenter.org/tell-your-story